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Aug 28

TABM 2013 NFL Preview: Five Factors, NFC South

From year to year, the NFL experiences rapid and dynamic changes. As we explained upon the creation of this website, many of these changes have to do with regression to the mean. Because of this regression, a majority of these changes can actually be predicted. With proper research of the NFL stat books and a keen understanding of the game’s context, you can successfully predict the changes.

This is exactly what we did when creating last year’s NFL preview, as six spectacular articles foretold some major change in the NFL from 2011 to 2012. We look to do that again this year. While we already discussed some of the major changes, we want to expand the prognostications to the whole league. Therefore, I’ll spend eight August days discussing five factors of regression in the 2013 season for each team in the NFL. This will help to paint the picture for our season predictions, which will be made at the end of the month.

Today, we look at the NFC South.

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Atlanta Falcons (13-3, 1st place in 2012)
Atlanta FalconsThe Atlanta Falcons organization turned the corner during the formative years of Mike Smith’s head coaching and Matt Ryan’s quarterbacking careers. After going 11-5 in 2008 and 9-7 in 2009, the franchise finally earned its first back-to-back winning seasons. That winning tradition continued through a 13-3 season in 2010 and a 10-6 season in 2011. However, Ryan couldn’t lead the team to a playoff victory, losing in each of his first three tries. Finally, the Falcons broke through with a 30-28 victory in a squeaker against the Seahawks. Atlanta lost a 27-7 lead before Ryan got a comeback in the final minute of the game. In the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons stormed out to an early 17-0 lead, but couldn’t hang on to the lead this time. They lost 28-24, ending what was possibly the franchise’s best chance at a Super Bowl during the Smith-Ryan era. Now, regression is on deck for Atlanta in 2013. Will this team take a major step down?

Down1. W-L record: For the second time in three years, the Falcons out-punched their weight to make the playoffs as the NFC’s top seed. In 2010, the team went 7-2 in one-possession games and finished with a -1.73 Pythagorean win differential. Therefore, their 13-3 record was subject to regression the following season. In 2012, Atlanta also went 7-2 in one-possession games (8-3 if you include the postseason). However, this time, the team won four of those games against teams with a losing record. Overall, the Falcons finished with a -1.93 Pythagorean win differential. It looks like the 2012 team will be even more vulnerable to regression than the 2010 team. Therefore, 10-6 could be a liberal prediction for Atlanta in 2013. Regression results: worse W-L record

Down2. Fourth-quarter comebacks: Part of the reason why the Falcons out-punched their weight was the clutch play of their quarterback, Matt Ryan. The master of the one-minute drill, Ryan pulled off one of those magic moments again in the playoffs. That win against Seattle was Ryan’s fifth one-minute drill victory. That’s an NFL best (per Scott Kacsmar). In total, Atlanta made five fourth-quarter comebacks as part of its seven game-winning drives. The respective records in those situations for the year were 5-3 and 7-3. That’s not a maintainable record from year to year. Teams generally finish below .500 in those situations. Also, they generally don’t have that many comeback wins. Regression results: fewer fourth-quarter comebacks

Down3. Quality record: In the regular season, the Falcons played only four teams with at least a .500 record. They won all four games. Going undefeated against non-losing teams is extremely hard to do in the NFL. The 2011 Packers achieved it, and they went 15-1. So did the 2003 Patriots (14-2) and 2007 Patriots (16-0). That makes up the list for the past decade. The Falcons should forget about getting another clean sweep against quality teams. Heck, Atlanta should also forget about only playing four games against quality opponents as well. One or two other NFC South team will earn a winning record, which would already add at least two such games. Atlanta also has to play the NFC West, AFC East and two other 2012 NFC divisional champions. That should add at least four games in itself, so that’s 6-8 games against quality teams in 2013. Regression results: worse quality record

Down4. Offensive strength of schedule: According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, the Falcons faced the weakest slate of defensive opponents in the NFL last year. Their average opponent posted a 3.5% defensive DVOA, which certainly made life easier for the offense. The 16 opponents (counting divisional opponents twice each) allowed 393.69 points on average. It’s no wonder Atlanta scored 419 points to finish seventh in the league in scoring. Compare this to the team Atlanta beat in the playoffs. The Seahawks scored 412 points against teams that averaged 348.44 points allowed. Therefore, the Seahawks scored nearly 40 more relative points on offense than Atlanta. Actually, the Falcons were 12th in relative scoring, making that offense merely above average. They will feel the effect of facing a tougher slate of defensive opponents. Regression results: fewer points scored

Down5. Passing defense: Atlanta faced some solid offenses last year. It’s not easy to go up against Peyton Manning, Drew Brees (twice), Robert Griffin III and Tony Romo. Those five games can be hazardous to your defensive numbers. Still, the Falcons allowed only 14 passing touchdowns on the season on 551 pass attempts. No team allowed fewer passing touchdowns last year. Teams allowing 14 or fewer touchdown passes haven’t improved the following season since the 1996-97 Packers. That shows that the dynamic offenses of this era can’t be slowed down on a year-to-year basis anymore, unless a team’s pass defense is truly elite. We can’t say that about the Falcons. Regression results: more passing touchdowns allowed

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Carolina Panthers (7-9, 2nd place in 2012)
Carolina PanthersThe pieces seemed to fit nicely for the Panthers to possibly make the playoffs in 2012. Quarterback Cam Newton made some awesome plays and put up good volume of numbers as a rookie in 2011. Keeping his efficiency numbers at the same level would be a good thing. Meanwhile, the defense was bound to see some helpful regression. Unfortunately, Carolina never got out of gates with that mentality applied on the field. Instead, they were still a team learning how to win. During a 1-6 start, the Panthers lost five one-possession games. They would lose another one three weeks later to fall to 2-8, making the season seem like a potential disaster. Luckily for Carolina fans, the Panthers used the rest of the season to right the ship. The team finished the year 5-1, with the lone loss coming against an inspired Chiefs team playing in honor of a former teammate’s family. In the end, Newton didn’t regress and the defense got better. So is now the time for a playoff run?

Up1. One-possession games: As you can see from the team introduction, the Panthers lost a lot of close games. That loss in Kansas City was also a one-possession defeat, so in total, Carolina finished with a 4-7 record in one-possession games. However, three of those wins were by eight points, so record drops to 1-7 in games decided by seven points or fewer. This only follows the problems from 2011, as the Panthers went 2-6 in one-possession games. If we did the “Five Factors” last year, we would’ve claimed regression in those games. Technically, we would’ve been correct, but there wasn’t regression when switching the parameter to seven points or fewer. Regardless, we think there will be a change for the better all around in one-possession games in 2013, even when games are decided by seven points or fewer. Regression results: better record in one-possession games

Up2. First-half record: The aforementioned sentiment that the Panthers were still “learning how to win” also has to do with how the team can’t win until the pressure of making playoffs is off their backs. In both 2011 and 2012, Carolina started 2-8 before making a nice late-season run to finish with a decent losing record. Those late-season runs should be helpful — eventually. (We’re firmly against tanking in football, because there’s no proof it remotely helps.) In the last two years, the team owns a 4-12 record in the first half of the season and a 9-7 record in the second half of the season. Scoring wise, this team has looked a half step below .500 in the past two years, so it looks like Carolina played four games below expectations in the first half of the season. In a trumped-up way, this sets up a logical argument for regression. Regression results: better W-L record in the first half of the season

Up3. Opponent field goal percentage: Last year, Carolina’s opponents made 35 of 37 field goal attempts. Only Baltimore’s opponents (37-of-39) did better. That means Carolina’s opponents made 94.59 percent of their field goal attempts, which is much better than the league’s 83.65 percentage. Perhaps normal field goal production would’ve helped in the 30-28 loss in Atlanta (game-winning field goal with 0:05 left) or the 23-22 loss in Chicago (game-winning field goal as time expired). With the way field goal percentage can fluctuate year-to-year, due to the extremely fluid context for placekicking situation, the Panthers should feel great about their tough luck in the kicking game coming to an end. Regression results: better opponent field goal percentage

DownUp4. Field goal attempts: The Carolina special teams actually got quite the awful two-for-one deal when it came to placekicking. Compared to their opponent performance, their own was nonexistent. The Panthers only went 16-for-21 in field goal attempts. This happened due to two reasons. First, Cam Newton is already the best running quarterback in the red zone, as he has 22 rushing touchdowns through two seasons. He helps out the red zone offense to score touchdowns instead of field goals. Second, the team didn’t do too well in turning non-field-goal situations into field goal situations. We expect both situations to see some regression in 2013. Carolina’s 21 rushing touchdowns had something to do Newton’s eight scores and Mike Tolbert’s seven scores on the ground. Don’t expect those two to combined for 15 scores again. Meanwhile, the Panthers should have more than three attempts from 50+ yards. Regression results: more field goals made, but fewer rushing touchdowns

Down5. Kickoff coverage: We talked about this two days ago with the Browns. Carolina allowed a league-best 18.95 yards per kick return, which falls below a newly-established threshold for regression. Strangely enough, this didn’t help out the team in drive situations, as the Panthers ranked 24th in average opponent starting line of scrimmage in their drives (per Football Outsiders). However, this is a good thing for 2013 when it comes to regression. We can conclude that the kickoff coverage regression won’t have a notable affect on the team’s defensive drive stats. This might be some harmless regression as long as the team doesn’t allow return touchdowns. Regression results: more yards per kick return allowed

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New Orleans Saints (7-9, 3rd place in 2012)
New Orleans SaintsOnce upon a time, the Saints put bounty on opposing teams and opposing players. The NFL found out about the team’s plans. In turn, the league put out a bounty of its own to take down the Saints. The biggest causality ended up being head coach Sean Payton, who was suspended for the 2012 season. Without Payton, the offense didn’t lose a major step, as the Saints became one of two teams ever to throw 40+ touchdown passes in consecutive seasons (with the 2011-12 Packers). However, the team never seemed to have control of the game flow, especially on defense. In fact, the defense had a historically bad season, allowing an NFL-record 7042 yards on 1089 plays. If the NFL wanted to the Saints to become an example of what would happen to a team that placed bounties on opposing players, the 7-9 record should be a warning shot for all to heed. Now, the Saints will look to bounce back with the help of regression.

Up1. Yards per play allowed: Yards don’t always tell the picture. It is highly contextual stat. Therefore, we instead use yards as a means to create more meaningful stats, like yards per play allowed. As expected, when a team allows an NFL record high amount of yards, it’s going to make the yards per play allowed look bad. The Saints allowed 6.47 yards per play, making them the 14th team since 1950 to allow 6.25+ yards per play (per Pro Football Reference). In fact, no team since the 1951 Bears allowed more yards per play than the 2012 Saints defense. Comparing the two, we’re looking at are two of the most dreadful defenses during the two most offensive-friendly eras in pro football history. In the offseason, New Orleans hired to Rob Ryan to be defensive coordinator. While his coaching history labels him merely as a mediocre to above-average coordinator, he will certainly get the team out of these depths, with some help from a tried and true mathematical friend. Regression results: fewer yards per play allowed

Up2. Scoring defense: Consider it no surprise that the defense with the worst yards per play allowed in 61 years would also have one of the worst scoring defenses in recent history. With 454 points allowed, the Saints became one of 31 teams to allow 450+ points since 1940 (per Pro Football Reference). How the Saints got there isn’t glaringly obvious from a game-to-game sense. New Orleans allowed 31+ points in seven games (Washington, at Carolina, at Denver, San Francisco, at New York Giants, at Dallas and Carolina), which is far from the NFL-record 11 games set by the 2008 Lions. Meanwhile, the Saints somehow threw in a shutout into that mess. Still, only the 1999 Bengals allow more points the year after allowing 450+ points, so regression is still set somewhere in the cards. It will probably come somewhere from those seven games. Regression results: fewer points allowed

Down3. Passing touchdowns: Somehow, despite all the defensive problems, the Saints actually outscored their opponents. That happened due to the team’s 43 touchdown passes, with 41 coming from Drew Brees. As already mentioned, the Saints became one of two franchises to have back-to-back seasons with 40+ touchdown passes. The Saints joined the Packers of the past two seasons on the list. In both cases, the 2012 season was one in which the offense regressed from historic levels, but remained above the threshold for regression. Therefore, we will go the regression well again. Luckily for the Saints, Drew Brees will see a positive bounce back in completion percentage, as he put up better totals in every season under Payton than he did in 2012. Therefore, Offensive Passer Rating isn’t fully in the regressive crosshairs. Regression results: fewer touchdown passes

Up4. Field goal attempts: Take away some of those touchdowns from regression, and those will likely turn into field goal attempts. The 2012 Saints scored 58 touchdowns, but only attempted 22 field goals. Only the Panthers (21) made fewer field goal attempts. The league average last year was just under 32 attempts per team. Expect the Saints to get closer to that. Even if New Orleans drop down to a still-awesome 38 touchdown passes in 2013, that could potentially transfer so the Saints attempt 27 field goals and get halfway back to the league average. However, the year-to-year contextual dynamics of placekicking are much more volatile than that, so we may see a bigger change. Regression results: more field goal attempts

Up5. Pythagorean win differential: Here’s one case where the differential doesn’t always stand for regression despite passing the threshold. The Saints outscored their opponents while having a losing record. No matter how you slice it, without a tie involved, those two conditions make a Pythagorean win differential greater than +1.00. So in cases like this, it comes down to one question: is this team more like its record (a losing team) or more like its point differential (a winning team)? Under Sean Payton, the Saints have gone no worse than 7-9, when they did so in 2006. The team also went 7-9 during his one-year suspension. With Drew Brees at the helm and Payton returning, this team looks more like the latter. Regression results: better W-L record

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9, 4th place in 2012)
Tampa Bay BuccaneersOnce upon a time, finishing last in the NFC South meant that good things were just around the corner. When the NFC South was established in 2002, it put together four of the least successful franchises in the league. That made life in the division quite volatile from year-to-year. The first eight fourth-place finishers finished with a winning record the following season. The first seven made the playoffs, while the eighth went 10-6. Two of them made the Super Bowl, with the 2003 Panthers losing Super Bowl XXXVIII and the 2009 Saints winning Super Bowl XLIV. Now those times have past. The 2011 Panthers turned a 2-14 season into a 6-10 season, and the 2012 Buccaneers turned a 3-13 season into a 7-9 season. As a result, the 2011-12 Buccaneers became the first back-to-back last-place finishers in the NFC South. Does regression now say the Buccaneers will be the first last-place finisher to decline in record the following season?

Down1. Run defense: In 2011, the Buccaneers fielded a horrific run defense. They were one of just seven teams since 1940 to allow 2400+ rushing yards and 24+ touchdowns on 5.0+ yards per attempt (per Pro Football Reference). That’s just AWFUL. In 2012, the Buccaneers turned things around with a statisical 180. They led the NFL by allowing 1320 rushing yards, with an average of 3.50 yards per attempt. Also, according to Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, Tampa Bay’s run defense finished with the best “stuff rate” since 1995. That’s very good. As a result, we have a glaring example of elasticity. The front seven lost Michael Bennett and Roy Miller to free agency, but it still has studs in Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David. This run defense will decline to the middle of the pack, but it should stay solid overall. Regression results: more rushing yards allowed and more yards allowed per attempt

Up2. Pass defense: While the run defense was phenomenal, the pass defense was just awful. Tampa Bay allowed 7.28 Real Passing Yards per Attempt, ranking them 31st in the league (per Cold, Hard Football Facts). Overall, the team allowed opponents to pass for 4758 yards, which is the second most by a team since 1940 (per Pro Football Reference). Only six teams in that span allowed 4500+ passing yards. Cue regression. While the run defense falls back to Earth, the pass defense will emerge from the smoldering depths of football hell. Regression results: fewer passing yards allowing and fewer DRPYPA

Down3. Big-play offense: Quarterback Josh Freeman is genuinely an interesting statistical beast under center. As a rookie in 2009, he was a turnover machine who threw 18 interceptions in 290 attempts (6.21 percent of his passes). The next season, he threw 25 passing touchdowns and only six interceptions, putting him in very rare company with his touchdown-to-interception ratio. He regressed in 2011, but also threw 22 interceptions and dropped his yards per attempt total close to his rookie form. Finally, last season, he threw a career-high 27 touchdown passes and got his yards per attempt back to 2010 form. That yards per attempt total looks good because Freeman did a great job of moving the ball in big chunks. Tampa Bay led the league with 16 completed passes of 40+ yards. To make matters better for the offense, rookie running back Doug Martin scored six touchdowns of 35+ yards (five rushing and one receiving) en route to his 1926 yards from scrimmage. In the total, the Buccaneers had five runs of 40+ yards. That big-play Buccaneers form looked great in 2012, but it will regress in 2013. Regression results: fewer plays of 40+ yards

Up4. Pass completion percentage: While that big-play form helped out Tampa Bay, the team could’ve benefited from more accurate passing from Josh Freeman. He took all but eight passes for the team in 2012, and the Buccaneers finished 31st in the league with a 54.95 completion percentage as a result. The league completes about 60.89 percent of passes. Note that Freeman completed 62.15 percent of his passes from 2011 and 2012 combined. Therefore, not only does owning a sub-55 completion percentage probably fit a threshold for regression, but Freeman seems to have elasticity that will go in his favor if he plays the whole year. If rumblings about Freeman’s relationship with head coach Greg Schiano mean anything, that last nugget will be the only thing that can prevent Freeman from bouncing back. Regression results: better pass completion percentage

Down5. Field goal luck: The Buccaneers got a big break from Mother Luck when it comes to opposing field goal kickers. Opponents only converted 19 of 28 field goal attempts, giving them a 67.86 percentage. The league average is 83.65 percent. For those thinking that most of this has to do strength of opponents, note that the Panthers had the second-toughest luck despite playing 12 common opponents. It seems to be much more about the random chance and context-based outcomes that made this “good luck” for Tampa Bay. The luck will certainly fade away, come 2013. Regression results: better opponents field goal percentage

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